The rules of ambition

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"It's a lie, you know," Kirya stated, confidently, to Tarn. They walked the streets of Bruckin together, observing local customs, observing how people went about their lives in a city founded on industry and construction. It felt like a very practical city, designed for purpose and utilitarian creation, contrasting starkly with the artful exploration in Treydolain's architecture and technology.

"What?" Tarn wore his perpetually confused frown, his eyes roving over everything but seeming to understand nothing. Though his speech had improved since they'd left the capital his turn of phrase was still abrupt and rude to her ears, but she did her best to ignore it.

"The Lief brothers. They go to great effort to present Bruckin as a haven for hard working people, that somehow this place is more honest than the south - especially Treydolain." She tried out a mocking tone, mimicking the advertisements that plastered the poor quarter back home, at least until city guards found and tore them down. "Bring your family to Bruckin! Become a stonebreaker! No Kings or Gods - only fire and industry!"

"I like it."

Kirya snorted. "They make it sound like anyone can come here and live in luxury." She ran a hand down the nape of her neck, which still felt cold and exposed without the gentle caress of her hair. She'd never noticed it when it was there but now she could feel its absence keenly. At times, the sudden lightness left her momentarily unbalanced on her feet, as if her head would float off her shoulders and drift towards the clouds.

"Everyone is busy here," Tarn said. "They seem happy."

"They die young," Kirya said, grimacing and pulling her coat tighter about her shoulders. "Everybody is pushed ever-harder, towards some indistinct goal, and it takes its toll. If you get to fifty you're doing well, especially if you can still walk."

Tarn nodded. "You keep hundreds of boys underground," he noted. "We die everyday. Crushed in machines. Beaten by guards." He counted on his fingers. "Fifty is many lives in the machine rooms."

It stung, as it always did. Her brain continued to compartmentalise Tarn's background, locking it away in a dark corner where she could ignore it, or think of it as someone else's problem. For brief spells she was able to look at Tarn and see an ordinary - if strange - boy, divorcing his present situation from where he had come. The rest of the time the reality came crashing home: her family had done this to him. Were still doing it, to others.

"Good counting," she said, forcing a smile. "You're doing well."

"You are a good teacher," he said. "So is Master Silt."

"He's not your master. He's just old." The guilt was only made worse by Tarn's continuing inability to grasp the complexities of their relationships: though he understood that she and Fenris had occupied positions of power, he had not connected it back fully to his own plight. They had both been party to his imprisonment and enforced slavery, in their own way. His mind was developing every day, it seemed, with sleep delivering new words and understanding via a means she didn't comprehend. It was only a matter of time until he formed a problematic understanding of the world.

Steam vented through a grate from below the street level, instantly melting the slush nestling within cobbles and drawing her attention up, to the walkways above. They glinted in the sunlight, bright against the shade of the street.

"People here think that they'll be up there one day," she said, pointing. "But that never really happens. Maybe to one or two people in a generation, and they tell everyone to keep that dream alive."

"Like your towers of rock." He mimicked the shapes of the mesas with his hands.

"That's different. It's a monarchy - that's how it is. Here, they pretend that they're all living in the same world. It's unfair."

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